MEXICO CITY – Percibald Garcia recognized that confinement during the coronavirus lockdown is especially tedious for children. So the young architect decided to read them stories.
Almost every day since the beginning of May, the 27-year-old has gone out in an enormous Mexico City apartment complex with his “wandering microphone” to broadcast stories to children who gather at their windows to listen.
While most kids these days have cellphones, tablets or computers, Garcia wants them to hear the human voice and the world of shared tales. He also wants them to realize they can use, even from a distance, the public plazas that have served as the anchor of life in Mexico for centuries.
“We realized that almost nobody was looking after the way that kids were experiencing this lockdown,” Garcia said Saturday.
Setting up his microphone in one of the green spaces that sit between rows of apartment buildings, he read ”El Tlacuache Lunatico” (“The Crazy Opossum”). It’s a story by David Martín del Campo about a possum who suffers because he is so short. The possum tries to reach the moon to feel taller. Once there, he eats the moon — and then has to figure out, with fellow animals, how to bring it back. Other stories follow the same vein.
Garcia often precedes a story by playing songs by the celebrated Mexican children’s composer Francisco Gabilondo Soler, who performed as Cri-Cri the cricket. Sometimes other storytellers perform, as does a puppet troop. And always, just as on Saturday, children appear at the windows of the multistory building to take in the show.
In the end, it is an act of mutual comfort, similar to the Italians who serenaded each other from their balconies early in the pandemic, but also a cry to reclaim shared public spaces and stem the migration to a digital, virtual world.
“In the last three months, everything has gone online, —work, contacts, shopping,” said Garcia. “This is an act of resistance in the face of this ferocious digitalization we are experiencing.”
Rogelio Morales listened to the stories from the window of his grandmother’s apartment. Since March, the 9-year-old has spent much of his time playing video games. “The only thing I go out for is to walk my dog,” he said. “It’s a little boring. I miss school.”
“It’s nice,” Rogelio said of the storytelling. “If we have something to do, or if we’re very frustrated, we can relax a little.”
Luna Gonzalez, came with her mother, Tatiana Vega, to listen to the stories from a safe distance, both wearing face masks.
“I imagine the characters, I imagine what the animals are like,” said Luna, who used the opportunity to go out to dress up in her finest. “Sometimes we go out, because I get bored at home.”
Garcia calls his project “De la Casa a la Plaza” (“From the house to the plaza”) — a reference to the town squares where historically Mexicans have gathered to socialize and share.
The pandemic hit this aspect of life hard, because people have been encouraged not to go out or gather for fear of contagion.
It’s a tradition that also has been altered in the modern neighborhoods of Mexico’s big cities, where shopping malls have often replaced plazas and parks as gathering spots. But due to the coronavirus, the malls also have been ordered closed in Mexico City.
Garcia’s family has lived in the capital’s Tlatelolco neighborhood since 1967, just a few years after it opened in 1964. It originally contained nearly 12,000 apartments and spread over 232 acres (94 hectares). The government-built complex was erected during a period when architects still felt they had to provide open, communal spaces, something private developers have largely abandoned.
“The public plaza has been extremely important in Mexico since the time of our ancestors,” since the Aztecs, Garcia noted. “It is where people meet, talk, where the life of a neighborhood develops.”
“The shopping mall is now the plaza, but it’s private ... you have to pay,” he added. “This kills the public plaza, kills the social structures.”
Some children have even approached Garcia to read their own stories, and other guest storytellers are invited to join.
“This is an invitation to people to continue using the public plaza,” he said.
It is not only children who listen.
Rogelio’s grandmother, Maria Elena Sevilla, also leaned out her ground-floor window.
“This young man will get a special reward from God, because it is not just children he is entertaining, it is people of my age, too,” she said.